Liberatory Alternatives and Liberal Containment in Black Panther
I knew I would see Black Panther on opening night in IMAX. I’d been listening to the soundtrack since it came out and I was hyped for it. After I saw it, I wrote this Facebook post:
There are specificities to Blackness and, of course, not taking away from that at all, I think it’s a gift for all of us colonized people. Lupita Nyong’o’s character has the same name as a girl I knew from my own ethnic community growing up. What would it look like for our names not to be something to stumble over? What would it look like for our skin and features to be considered beautiful? What would it look like for the colours of our ancestral clothing to be celebrated rather than considered garish? What would it look like for our rituals to be honoured rather than shamed? There’s a lot of safe liberalism in this movie, like all Marvel movies, that I think we can and should critique. But just on this personal level it made me so happy feeling the importance of representation, not just seeing token melanin on the screen but imagining a different kind of world.
I was enthralled by the world of Black Panther. “Representation matters” has become kind of a slogan in our time but not all representation is disruptive or makes us see differently or outside of social and cultural conventions. Diversity on its own does not do the work of making-visible within existing conventions; there’s a clear difference between tokenism and actually accounting for the history of marginalized people represented. Black Panther seemed to be doing this work by foregrounding colonialism, the unconscious of American popular culture, continually disavowed. In the two biggest jokes, Shuri admonishes the white character Ross, “don’t scare me like that, colonizer”—funny from both the mere fact of calling him colonizer as well as the idea that colonizers could be unthreatening—and M’Baku saying he’s vegetarian after threatening to feed Ross to his children, playing on the savage trope. Both jokes serve as catharsis for colonized people rather than comfort for colonizers. There’s no denying that this film did something new, especially for those of us whose ancestors experienced colonialism but also for those who have never been asked to inhabit, if only for a couple hours, a position outside the dominant.
Black Panther raises an important question: what are the possibilities for representing alternative within the mainstream? After all, this is a Marvel movie, part of a huge internationally lucrative franchise. And Wakanda is still informed by colonialism through its emphasis on borders and isolation, just as the film is informed generically by Shakespeare, the hero’s quest, comics, and other Western archetypes. Yet it seems like recent films in the Marvel franchise are pushing gently against hegemonic structures, such as the critique of the state in Captain America: Civil War and the conversion of colonizers into refugees in Thor: Ragnarok. Marvel movies as a whole espouse an aspirational liberal politics, presenting exceptional individuals, with some melanin here and there, but not until Black Panther does the franchise attempt to go beyond mere diversity in order to imagine an alternative to the mainstream of capitalism, colonialism, patriarchy, and liberal individualism.
Black Panther imagines a beautifully rendered fantasy of an African nation, Wakanda, outside of colonial relations and the economics of scarcity, with artisanal rather than industrial marketplaces and high-tech farmers who still have relationships with their animals. What we would consider alienated labour here seems to be automated. Princess Shuri is a STEM superhero, and Wakanda’s technology and resources appear to stave off any critiques of the monarchy itself. In contrast to the violence of social death in Compton that opens the film, Black Panther’s Wakanda represents an Afro-futurist fantasy that is specifically African American, the imagined recuperation of a pan-African motherland, while the New York cosmopolis of the Marvel franchise as a whole is basically our liberal democratic status quo, or at least what liberals want it to be. Moreover Wakanda’s isolationism is not Trumpian because it’s not from the position of settlers or colonizers but a people who are resisting colonialism.
A striking scene in Black Panther takes place in an imagined analogue to the cabinet of horrors that is The British Museum as Erik Killmonger, a young Black man, looks at African artifacts while a white curator explains their history in a detached, academic manner. The film presents a hegemonic, colonial view of plunder-as-preservation in the museum space before disrupting it, as Erik and his companions murder the museum staff and steal (back) the artifacts; within the genre, Erik’s actions are legible as villainous, complete with a cackling accomplice, one of the two white characters, Ulysses Claue. The scene serves to crystallize the contradictions of the film: even as Black Panther disrupts mainstream colonial historiography through its critique of the museum-as-theft, it contains the disruptive potential through recognizable generic conventions, the villainous heist.
As Black Panther is part of superhero franchise that presents liberal individualism as an ideal, its narrative must resolve two major contradictions: the undemocratic nature of monarchy and xenophobic isolation of Wakandans as chosen people. While Wakanda places great emphasis on “royal blood,” T’Challa’s narrative trajectory requires him to legitimize himself beyond his mere inheritance; he must at once renounce the mistakes of his fathers while also proving himself worthy of his inheritance to lead the people. While this is the narrative framework of the superhero origin story, it is arguably the least interesting part of the film, as it is a story common in other Disney movies, the Shakespeare plays and fairy tales upon which they are based, and indeed other narratives that serve to legitimize the naturalization of sovereign power.
Instead, the more compelling conflict at the heart of Black Panther lies in how it addresses Wakanda’s isolationism through the divergent politics of Nakia and Killmonger. According to Nakia, Wakanda is not a utopia because it is hyper-nationalist; anti-colonial politics are coded as feminist coming from Nakia, who fights when she has to but is primarily a spy, whose weapon is information and infiltration (that is, change from within), and whom we first encounter liberating women from captivity. She resists T’Challa’s investment in tradition because for her if there is injustice anywhere then Wakanda is also not free—it is wrong for them to isolate themselves in the name of protection when there are people who need protecting. T’Challa tells her, “If you were not so stubborn, you would make a great queen.” To which she answers, “I would make a great queen because I am stubborn—if that’s what I wanted.” Nakia’s vision of intervention is predicated on the crucial solidarity among oppressed peoples. Following the genre, the narrative ends with the couple-form, but the reconciliation is not on the level of character but rather whose politics are privileged—that is, T’Challa and by extension the film itself must privilege Nakia’s worldview for them to be together.
On the other side, Killmonger, inheriting from his father a desire to act in the face of the oppression of Black people in America, explicitly calling out police violence and mass incarceration, takes his CIA training through spreading American imperialism and seeks to reproduce that in Wakanda—to liberate Black people by reproducing colonialism, or as he puts it, perhaps a bit too on the nose, “The sun will never set on the Wakandan Empire.” Killmonger espouses a politics of negation and no futurity—contrasted to the couple-form of Nakia and T’Challa—and he burns down the garden of magic fruit that anoints future monarchs, an unforgivable act that delegitimizes him in a world that emphasizes genealogy, inheritance, and reproduction.
Black Panther’s narrative strategy of containment has a long history: just as in The Tempest Caliban’s attempted rape of Miranda works to delegitimize his claim to the island—his character is not “noble” enough to rule—Killmonger’s violence towards Black women and that he killed his own brothers and sisters in Africa, Iraq, and Afghanistan delegitimizes whatever genuine consideration one may give to a politics that involves armed struggle—such as that espoused by historical revolutionaries—in favour of liberal economic or political engagement. Thus the character of Killmonger highlights how conventional narratives deliberately put forth radical politics for the very purpose of containment and delegitimization. He is both a victim and perpetrator of colonialism, and reduced to a tragic individual rather than a vector of legitimate politics that also involves arms, such as that of the real Black Panthers.
Some criticisms of the film argue that it’s ultimately just about Black people, helped by a token white CIA agent, fighting to protect white people from Killmonger, but that overlooks that Erik was actually trained by the CIA and thus the film requires Ross for its critique of American imperialism. Ross says, “he’s one of our own” and thus his damage stems from the American imperialism he seeks to reproduce through ruling Wakanda. Ross is an important character in this film’s vision of redemption, as aligning himself with Wakanda functions to contain the critique of the CIA and its imperial wars—American Empire through him becomes just a misguided liberalism. On the other hand, Ulysses Klaue’s perspective towards Wakanda is old-school colonial: he wants to invade and steal their resources. Ross’s colonialism instead merely views Wakanda as “primitive,” and once he gets to know them—that they’re not what his colonial perspective assumed them to be—he embraces their ways. The distinction between Klaue and Ross in terms of redemption parallels Killmonger and the militant child Nakia rescues from the terrorists at the beginning of the film: she tells the rescued women, “Take the boy. Get him to his people.” The child is brought back into the fold before it is too late, while Killmonger is too far into what the film constructs as the politics of negation—that is, within the terms of the film all violence not sanctioned by the monarch is negation rather than legitimate struggle.
Ultimately, I think the question should not be whether Black Panther is or is not offering an alternative representation but rather on what scale does it critique and on what scale does it contain that critique. In order words, where is critique allowable and where it is suppressed? Killmonger’s last line is the emotional climax of the film, but within the terms of character and narrative it is a false comparison to enslavement. This line, taken within the specificities of character and narrative, is misguided and contradictory: Killmonger was not kidnapped for enslavement but actually embraced the tactics of the oppressor. However, it is undoubtedly a powerful line to hear in a mainstream Hollywood film. On this scale, taken as an articulation by the film to the audience, we can read it as a politics of refusal as strong as Bartleby the scrivener’s: the choice of annihilation over living in a system that perpetuates injustice. Killmonger focuses on social death and anti-Blackness but flattens the specificities, which are that he is both a victim and a victimizer, someone who recognizes the historical structures (recall his critique of museum) but does not recognize that his violent vision for the future would reproduce colonialism—that is, a reproduction of the past. Killmonger’s proposal of armed resistance against colonizers conflates the violence of the real Black Panthers with the reproduction of colonialism, and the film cannot imagine a revolutionary form of violence. Wakanda is ultimately culpable for leaving him but he’s irredeemable, as according to the CIA he’s “one of us.” Yet the militant child whom Nakia saved represents the hope of redemption, along with Nakia incorporating T’Challa into her politics. Moreover, it is imperative for T’Challa’s elevation that he not corrupt himself through actually killing Killmonger; his violence must always be defensive, only used when necessary, and highly precise—even Killmonger praises his moves—and T’Challa cannot kill him when he is the inheritor of the isolationist tradition that is responsible for abandoning his cousin. That is, Killmonger’s character and his politics must themselves be negated but not through the violence of the King, whose legitimacy the superhero narrative must cement through his noble vanquishing of enemies and incorporation into the couple-form. Killmonger’s negation must occur through his own self-annihilation.
Thinking about remakes and sequels and adaptations in our current moment takes back me to Frederic Jameson, who, in the 1980s long before this intensification, diagnosed the cultural condition of postmodernism as the reproduction of dead styles:
“[T]he writers and artists of the present day will no longer be able to invent new styles and worlds—they’ve already been invented; only a limited number of combinations are possible; the unique ones have been thought of already. [. . .]. Hence, once again, pastiche: in a world in which stylistic innovation is no longer possible, all that is left is to imitate dead styles, to speak through the masks and with the voices of the styles in the imaginary museum.” — Frederic Jameson, “Postmodernism and Consumer Society”
I would argue that there is very little new about Black Panther, not its narrative nor genre nor even its technologically innovative special effects. But I locate its innovation in its very style, in the disruptive potential of its representation. Here I am thinking about classic feminist film theorists such as Mary Ann Doane, who argued that women—white women—overidentified with the women portrayed on Hollywood screens, or engaged in a “transvestism” to identify with men onscreen—white men. But racialized spectators in a white-dominated cinema have always had to take on another’s gaze, the white gaze; Black Panther instead asks white people to take on a racialized gaze. Even as the narrative offers the same triumph of the exceptional individual and tendency toward an idealized liberalism as other superhero films, in shifting the lens from the perspective of the colonizer to the colonized, the film constructs a spectatorial position that is not the dominant white gaze of other films, where we are not forced to racially costume ourselves in our oppressor’s garb.
On level of world-building and representation, the film presents an alternative to colonial hegemony, but on the level of narrative, it contains or diffuses any opposition to liberalism. The film commodifies alternative politics for mass consumption and profit while also prying open a representational outside to our current colonial reality. It holds in tension the contradiction of feminist, anti-colonial Wakanda with the narrative form of masculine superhero origin story in a massively profitable franchise, pushing at the potential and limits of what can be imagined as alternative.
Indeed, on one level, the film could represent the ultimate subsumption, that Africans who resisted colonialism can be liberal capitalist hegemons too; indeed, the inclusion of technology-rich Korea in the film perhaps points to US investment there as a model for Wakanda.
The narrative ultimately resolves with a retrenchment into the existing global order—not the current one of rising fascism but an aspirational liberalism, as T’Challa makes a speech at the UN promising to share their knowledge. However, the question that finishes the film is a European asking, “what can your farmers offer the world?” could be read in an oppositional way as well. Wakanda could export their non-colonial non-capitalist epistemologies and socialities. To be honest, I don’t have hope for this as the sequel seems sure to double-down on the liberal status quo with Wakanda entering the existing world order.
Crucially, Wakanda is not reproducible in our real world of scarcity. Yet I would like to end with pointing out how Black Panther has been taken up in the real world, through a critique of a real hyper-wealthy resource-rich monarchy. Jamal Khassoggi, who was recently and brazenly killed by the Saudi regime, wrote about Black Panther as an aspirational model: “At the end of the film, the young king of Wakanda chooses to use his country’s power to engage with the world for the greater good. Will Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who likely will soon become king of his country, use his power to bring peace to the world around him?” That Khashoggi was killed for espousing a liberal vision that is fairly banal and mainstream in films such as Black Panther gives a brutal answer to that question. Representation matters, but cannot shift the structures of power; representation cannot convince those with an investment in oppressive power of the humanity of marginalized people. Yet if we as cultural critics do believe at all that culture matters, that it can both reflect and affect material conditions, then despite its containment of radicalism Black Panther is still an important disruption of what can be imagined within the mainstream.